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18th March 1998 – The day the Jules Verne attempt came to an end…

By Tracy Edwards MBE

“In January 1998, after two years of hard work, I set off with the first (and only) all-female crew to attempt to break the Jules Verne non-stop round the world record attempt. The record we were trying to beat was 71 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds and was held by living legend Olivier de Kersuason and his all male crew. Our 92ft catamaran was one of the fastest boats on the water and we were confident we could break the record.  After 47 days racing full pelt around the planet, breaking seven world records and well within sight of our goal, our mast came smashing down just 2,000 miles from Cape Horn. Our dream was over.”

‘Tracy, Tracy, wake up.’


I opened my eyes and looked up into the smiling face of Helena.  She held a bowl and a spoon.  ‘I’ve brought you some dinner, I didn’t think you’d be able to make it to the galley.’  I hadn’t eaten since the accident because the pain-killers made me feel nauseous. 

‘Adrienne is doing the cooking. She’s wearing her survival suit just in case the pasta decides to leap up and attack her.’

I wanted to laugh but knew it would hurt. Helena helped me sit up. I glanced at the numbers above the chart table. The wind was a steady 50-knots.

‘The waves are getting better,’ said Helena. ‘Adrienne thinks we might be over the worst of it.’

I drifted off to sleep again. At some point Adrienne came back from the galley. She sat at the chart table and began calling up the latest satellite weather maps. Her face had taken on the same green glow of the navigation instruments.

‘I reckon we should be able to gybe back in another couple of hours,’ she said, showing me the latest map. 

‘What speed are we doing?’

She glanced at the dials.  ‘We’re keeping it down to 15 knots most of the time. Occasionally we’re surfing at 27.’

There was a movement to the left and behind me. Miki appeared in her survival suit, looking like an astronaut. I could only see her eyes behind the mask, but they were clearly tired and fraught.   For the next few hours I drifted in and out of sleep, unable to move. Each time the boat smashed into a wave, the muscles down the left side of my spine contracted and I groaned. 

Adrienne woke after two hours and checked the messages. I watched her silently and realised how much weight she’d lost. Just after noon GMT, Lee advised us that we could turn back onto our favoured gybe. We had to wait another two hours between squalls before we could change direction. We had never gybed in 44 knots of wind. Everybody was needed on deck, except the cripple in her bunk.

As I surveyed the damage, I felt as though my insides were being cut open and torn out.

‘Okay, let’s do it,’ said Miki. 

As the boat shifted down wind, Helena winched in the main, until the boom was directly over the cockpit. As one side of the boat released the sheets, the other side was winding them on. The main swung from starboard to port and the wind filled the sail. There was a tremendous sense of achievement amongst the crew. After being hammered for so long, we had proved our resilience. We were back in the race.  The ride felt a lot easier with the wind behind us. Occasionally, the big cat would take off and surf, but it wasn’t happening so often. 

I drifted in and out of sleep, fuzzy with pain-killers. 

‘Is this what you wanted, Tracy?’ I asked myself silently. ‘Is this what you expected? Did you underestimate the challenge?’

I found the answers. ‘No. We’re still here aren’t we? We’re in the race.’

A lot of the newspapers and yachting correspondents who had written us off at the start, or hadn’t bothered reporting our progress, had changed their minds over the previous few weeks. We were being taken seriously. Survive until the Horn and then we’ll come storming home. That was the goal.

At some point, Miki and Emma W. came down to talk to Adrienne and ask about the forecast.

‘Can we put some more sail up?’ Emma asked.

Adrienne nodded. ‘We’ve been frightened but let’s not let that affect us.’

I worried about putting up too much sail too soon. We all had a strong desire to grab back the lost miles, but that shouldn’t over-ride other considerations. There was still a lot of breeze and the seas were very rough. ‘I don’t want you taking reefs out too early. Be sensible,’ I said.

Sometime later I woke again to the sound of heavy boots clattering over the God Pod and winches that cranked and echoed through the fibreglass. 

‘What’s happening?’

‘We’re shaking out another reef,’ said Adrienne.

I looked at the numbers. The wind had settled a little, but the seas were still horrible. Everything is relative, of course. Having encountered 50-foot waves, it meant that anything less than 40-feet seemed positively benign.  The barometer had risen to 1005 and we were heading slightly east-sou-east at 20 knots. We hoped to gybe between 53°S and 54°S for the next few days, before diving south to round Cape Horn.

‘Why now?’ I wanted to cry. We didn’t deserve this fate. We had sailed too well to finish our race ignominiously upside down and fighting for our lives.

For the umpteenth time I wondered if we were pushing the boat too hard. How did I answer a question like that? This whole challenge had been about discovering our limits and pushing back the boundaries of fear. It had never been our intention to just get round the course – we set out to beat the record. To do that, meant racing on the edge. It also meant injuries to the crew and damage to the boat. 

We were 725 miles behind Sport Elec. Adrienne still believed we could catch them by Cape Horn. I thought we could narrow the gap to a day’s sailing.  Six hours before dawn, we were heading due east with a boat speed of 18 to 20 knots – very fast for the conditions. Sharon had the wheel and Miki gave her constant advice on how to steer through the waves.

Sensing that there was something behind her, Sharon glanced over her left shoulder. A rogue wave with a face that was almost vertical came out of the darkness. Later, Sharon said it reached more than halfway up the mast, which made it over 50 feet.

She had time to utter, ‘What do I…?’, before the wall of water had lifted the catamaran like a child’s bath toy and balanced her on the edge of the tub. The bows tipped forward and we dropped into the mine. Surfing at more than thirty knots, Sharon tried desperately to pull away but there was too much momentum. We hurtled into the trough and caught up with the wave in front. Both bows speared into water. 

My feet struck the bulkhead at the end of my bunk. The stern lifted as the freak wave caught up with us. Within a split second, the catamaran was standing on its nose. I looked across at Adrienne, who had just crawled into her bunk. The look in her eyes said, ‘We’re going over.’  Crouched at the end of my bunk, I could feel the ‘big cat’ sliding and trying desperately to come back. It didn’t want to go over. Gravity fought against the pressure of water and wind.

My back didn’t hurt. I was too terrified.

Sharon had been thrown against the wheel and then past it, landing in the well alongside Miki and Fred.   For those few seconds the clock seemed to have stopped. How ironic! All through the voyage I had been trying to hold back time and finally it had happened.

‘Why now?’ I wanted to cry. We didn’t deserve this fate. We had sailed too well to finish our race ignominiously upside down and fighting for our lives.

The ‘big cat’ fought hard to come back. Ironically, the same wave that almost pushed us over now rolled underneath and brought the bows back up. The hull settled in the trough and the wind filled the sails with a suddenness that put more strain on the rigging. 

The entire crew gathered in the cockpit and I caught glimpses of their faces in the torchlight as Miki briefed them. I knew they were all frightened, yet there was tremendous sense of determination and resolve. 

Ten or fifteen seconds passed, perhaps longer. I gingerly tried to crawl out of my bunk. Everything not tied down or lodged securely had become debris. Adrienne and my foul weather gear sloshed in water on the God Pod floor, along with flares, the spare safety harnesses and a laptop. The chart table was strewn with nav books, charts, pencils and e-mails.   I surveyed the damage as Adrienne tried to clean up. From above us, we heard the creaking and groaning of carbon fibre grating against itself.

Miki appeared at the door. ‘The rig’s coming down. It’s coming down now.’ She sounded so calm and matter-of-fact.

My brain screamed a single word, over and over. ‘No, no, no, no, no, no….’

I looked at Adrienne. ‘Oh, my God, the record.’

‘Sod the record! We’re 2,000 miles from anywhere.’

‘Send a mayday,’ I said, struggling to pull my foul weather gear over my head and shoulders.  Miki had already gone back on deck. My first priority was to send a distress signal and let somebody know our location in case we had to abandon ship.

Adrienne hit a ‘distress’ key on the laptop, which sent an automatic message to the search and rescue services in Falmouth, England. The duty officer would see the signal flash on screen giving the boats name and position.  Our computer program immediately gave us a list of options, such as sinking, disabled or man overboard. Adrienne ran through them quickly and typed: ‘Royal & SunAlliance. 92-foot catamaran. Lost rig. Position 52° 44S and 129° 49W. Disabled. Will advise if need help. Please stand by.’

Miki yelled from above. ‘The boom is over the port hull, the girls won’t be able to get out.’

I picked up the phone linking the hulls.  Emma W. answered. ‘What was that?’

‘The mast has come down. You won’t be able to get out of the hatch. Don’t panic. Don’t bother to get dressed, just grab your clothes. We don’t know if the hull has been damaged. We’re going to move the mainsail. I want you to climb out and come to the God Pod. You can get dressed here.’

Miki banged three times to wake Miranda, Hannah and Emma R. in the starboard hull. They gathered in the cockpit, wide-eyed with fear and still fastening their dry suits.   I scrambled on deck wearing just my mid-layers. My back no longer hurt – pure adrenalin had neutralised the pain. I couldn’t see a thing. The deck lights had come down with the mast. Miki shone a torch over the devastation. It revealed itself a small piece at a time.

The mast had crumpled rather than fallen over. Initially, it had broken near the top at the third spreader. Miki had seen it break again at the second spreader and then at the first before it crumpled over the port side.  As I surveyed the damage, I felt as though my insides were being cut open and torn out. A wave slammed into the starboard hull and exploded over the cockpit and netting. I blinked away salt water that might have been tears.

Sharon was distraught. ‘We just came down the wave. I couldn’t get off. I did everything I could to get off…we had nowhere to go…’

‘It’s okay, Sharon. It’s not your fault.’

‘…and then the mast just came down. I have never ever willed something to stay up there, so much in my life. “No, no, don’t fall down”. It was falling. Then it broke again. “No, no, you don’t want to do that”. And then it broke at the base, Oh, my God.’

It wasn’t Sharon’s fault, or anyone else’s. Ultimately, the responsibility rested with me.

‘We have to get the girls out,’ said Miki, struggling to be heard above the wind. The bottom section of the mast lay across the netting. The boom and mainsail covered the port hatch.

‘Hannah, grab a hacksaw in case we have to cut anything away.’

Using torches they picked their way through the debris and began lifting the boom. I went back to join Adrienne who had been sending messages to search and rescue centres in Chile, New Zealand and Australia. The reality of our plight was clear from the map. We were 2,500 miles from New Zealand, 2,300 miles from Chile and 1,200 miles from Antarctica. We couldn’t have chosen a place any further from rescue if we’d tried.

Having been freed, Helena, Sam and Emma W. arrived in the God Pod still wearing their thermals. Helena hobbled on a badly bruised knee but it had probably saved her life. If she hadn’t fallen in the nose-dive, she would have been coming out of the hatch as the rig came down. The boom would have landed on top of her.  Sam looked like a rabbit caught in a spotlight. Emma looked at me and I realised that she’d been saying the same thing over and over again. ‘Oh, God the record, the record.’

She put her arms around me. ‘We nearly did it, Tracy.’  I almost cracked. I could feel the tears welling in my eyes and a lump at the back of my throat. ‘No, Tracy, hold it together. Don’t lose it.’ I had to be cool-headed; totally unfazed.

The heavy seas were bashing the rigging against the port hull. It might already have been holed. The catamaran wasn’t likely to sink unless the watertight compartments had been breached.  Miki controlled things on deck. I had complete faith in her. She had been dismasted twice before and each time the crew had managed to put up a jury rig and sail to safety.  I could hear her shouting instructions from the cockpit. I helped Sam get dressed. 

‘Are they coming to get us?’ she asked.

‘Yes, if we need them.’

‘Is it going to be okay?’


I sent a single line message to race headquarters in Hamble:

‘Charlotte, we have lost our rig. We are sorting it out at this stage. We are in distress. The position is 52° 44S and 129° 51W.’

Adrienne maintained contact with maritime rescue centres in Australia, Chile and New Zealand. If we discovered a breach in the port hull, we’d need their help quickly. The same was true if we couldn’t rig a make-shift sail.  Miki and Hannah swung into the nav station. Both were breathing hard dripping wet. They braced themselves against the bulkheads near the hatchway as the boat pitched and rolled.

‘The mast is broken in three places and hanging over the port hull,’ said Miki. ‘The upper two-thirds are in the water. The only thing holding the sections together are torn pieces of mainsail and reefing lines.’

Hannah continued. ‘We have water coming into the starboard hull but it doesn’t look like a breach. I think a chain plate has been ripped from the deck and water is coming through when waves come over the top.’

‘How bad is it?’

‘I’ve told Sharon to turn on the bilge-pump,’ said Miki.

‘Okay, I’ll turn on the generator. Is there any sign of damage to the port hull?’

‘We don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait until we cut the rig away.’

‘Do it as quickly as you can. You’ve got to cut away the rigging hanging over the side.’

Hannah said anxiously, ‘We must try to save as much as we can. We can use it to make a new mast.’

‘Yes, but if it does look like endangering the boat, you have to let it go.’

Both nodded in agreement. I continued:  ‘We got ourselves into this situation and it’s our responsibility to get ourselves out of it. At the moment we don’t need saving, but that could change very quickly.’ As if to prove my point, a wave slammed into the bottom of the God Pod and rattled my spine. 

‘Miki, you’re in charge of what everyone does. Hannah, you’re in charge of the logistics of getting rid of the mast. I want you to tell Miranda that it’s her job to make sure everyone stays on the boat. They won’t be able to clip on easily. She won’t be able to shine a torch in their eyes. Tell her to do a roll call every few minutes.’

The entire crew gathered in the cockpit and I caught glimpses of their faces in the torchlight as Miki briefed them. I knew they were all frightened, yet there was tremendous sense of determination and resolve.  Miki and Hannah began issuing instructions. Tools had to be found. There were hacksaws in each of the hulls and also the God Pod. Wire cutters and more blades were kept in the forward lockers. Emma W. took a torch and began picking her way through the debris.

Miranda kept watch as the darkness closed behind Emma and all that was visible was the bouncing circle of light in her hand.  ‘I want some of you to put on life jackets rather than safety harnesses,’ said Miki. I don’t want you clipping on in case you’re attached to something that’s going over the side. Miranda, you’ll stay in the cockpit and do the roll-calls.’ 

I could hear their boots on the God Pod roof as they began cutting away the rigging. There are hundreds of yards of wire, ropes, reefing lines and torn cloth – all tangled together and wrapped around the broken mast. It looked as though a massive spider had wrapped its spindly legs around the hulls and tried to wrap us in its web.

Although the catamaran pitched and rolled, the broken mast seemed to act as a sea anchor, holding us solid in the water. Even without a sail we were doing two knots – what an unbelievable boat, she just wouldn’t give up!  Waves crashed over the starboard hull and seemed to explode up through the netting with even more force than before. Instead of coming from forward to back, as they did when we were moving, the waves erupted straight up, lifting girls clear off the netting. 

The next four hours passed in a blur of hacksaws and wire-cutters. Miki and Hannah tried to bring in the second section of mast lying nearest the port hull but it broke and had to be cut away. The girls worked without a break.   At one stage, I came on deck to find Emma R. using a hacksaw blade with her bare hands because she couldn’t find the handle. 

{65 – 67} Devastation

As the first tinges of grey light emerged on the eastern horizon, the full scale of the devastation emerged. My heart felt ready to break. Debris littered the decks and netting. Padeyes and chain plates had been ripped out, stanchions had caved in, cracks had opened, ropes and torn sail dragged in the water. A thoroughbred racing catamaran had become little more than a floating platform.

I came on deck as the last of the rig was cut away. Miki sawed through the carbon fibre on the middle section of the mast. The girls all stood and watched in silence as she cut through the final half-inch. As it separated, the rig and mainsail slid over the side and disappeared. I felt as though I had watched the body of a friend being buried at sea.

We had managed to save twenty-one feet of mast. It now lay across the netting alongside the boom. I still didn’t know if we could put it back up, or if it would disintegrate under the weight of a makeshift sail.  Hannah leaned over the port hull, examining it for damage. It appeared to be intact, although some of the Padeyes had ripped out of the deck, creating small holes.  It was now fully light. The girls had been working solidly for six hours. 

‘Right, everybody in the God Pod,’ I said. 

{68} We are still alive

People sat where they could find space and a few had to stay outside and huddle near the hatch. Sam had gone to make tea for everybody. Emma R. asked, ‘Do you think we can break into the Sunday cake?’

‘Emma, this is probably just the occasion to break into the Sunday cake.’


She dashed across to the galley and returned with the fruit cake and a knife. As she cut slices and handed them out, I struggled to get my head around the bizarre sight of eleven women having a tea party in the middle of the Southern Ocean on a crippled yacht.

I looked at the faces around me. Miranda and Sharon were wide-eyed, as if almost in shock. Miki looked exhausted, but tried to make light of it. Sam had grown very quiet, which worried me a little. Little Emma looked to be almost in denial the way she bounced and laughed, handing out pieces of cake. It was as if she’d said, ‘I can’t deal with this, so I’ll pretend it hasn’t happened.’  Hannah seemed angry and aggressive. I think she was pissed off at having endured weeks of misery only to discover that we weren’t going to get all the way around. 

Adrienne had been quite boisterous and upbeat. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I think she concentrated on me during those first few hours because she was so worried about me.

‘Right, let’s get down to business,’ I said. ‘I’m putting Hannah in charge of putting the mast back up. I’m not asking you if it can be done, Hannah, because it has to be done. I don’t care what it looks like, as long as it works.

‘Mikki, I want you to help Hannah and give everybody their tasks. Sharon, you’ll have to sew us some new sails. Adrienne will keep the emergency services up-dated and I’ll stay in touch with the office and do any other comms.’

One of the reasons I had chosen Hannah for the voyage was her ability as a ‘boat bodger’. Now she had her ultimate challenge – she had to make us a new mast.   For the next five hours the girls worked tirelessly. Hannah cut wooden spars from spare timber in the cockpit. These fitted inside the hollow top of the mast, bracing the outer edges apart so it wouldn’t collapse. Four support cables were attached which would hopefully hold the mast in place once we pulled it upright. 

There were two blocks at the front and one at the back, with a halyard going up and down.  The most difficult task lay ahead. How to lift the truncated mast into place. Eleven hours after the disaster, we were ready to try. Miki and Hannah had rigged up a pulley system to hoist it upright. There were two lines leading through blocks back to the cockpit winches and to lines that were to be pulled by hand. Another line ran forward through a block and then came back to one of the winches.

Speaking from the boat, Tracy Edwards said:  ‘We are disappointed beyond belief as we were so close to getting to Cape Horn in such good time against the record. Words cannot describe how we feel at the moment although the girls are once again pulling on their reserves of strength to get through this.’

{69 – 73} Jury rig up

With everyone in position, Hannah gave the orders.

‘Sam wind on a bit more.’

‘Not too quickly, Sharon.’

‘Steady…steady…keep it coming….’

The catamaran bucked and rocked in the swell, making the job more difficult. As the mast edged upwards, Hannah tried to make sure it was straight. 

‘Okay, set it down.’ Four people gripped the base of the mast and made small adjustments as it slid home. As the lines were cleated off, nobody felt like cheering. We didn’t have the energy.   

{74} Sharon creates a new sail for the jury rig

Sharon had prepared the storm jib as our first sail. With only 21 feet of mast, we would have to raise it sideways, with the corner that was normally sheeted in, becoming the top.  Clipping it to the halyard, it took her less than two seconds to hoist it aloft. Hannah sheeted it off and it bulged with the breeze. Ropes tightened on the winches and the new support lines creaked.

We were off again, with Miki at the wheel.

{75} Off we go

Adrienne asked the search and rescue services to stand down. We would give them positional reports every six hours.

Meanwhile, I sent a message to Charlotte: 

We are doing nine knots towards Chile. We will just head in the general direction of the coast at 50°S until we have some information on where to go.

It is really difficult trying not to show how much my heart is breaking at the moment and to keep people’s spirits up at the same time. Adrienne is being great and mopping up the tears so we don’t drown.


Nobody under-estimated the danger we still faced. We were deep into the Southern Ocean on a crippled yacht, directly in the path of two more fronts.  George and Lee wanted us to get further north because the lows would catch and pass us quickly. The next would arrive within 48 hours, bringing forecast winds of up to 45 knots. I knew the jury rig wouldn’t stand up to a severe storm.  Helena and Hannah began preparing the boat for the rougher weather, checking the drogues, tweaking the jury rig and filling any holes on deck with epoxy. Sharon and Fred worked for hours in the dungeon to turn the staysail into a main.

In London, a media release was drafted to break the news. As I read the statement, I seemed almost detached. So much had happened in the previous 18 hours that I hadn’t thought about the ramifications of failure. Here it was, set out for me; summed up in a few paragraphs:

Royal & SunAlliance, the 92ft catamaran skippered by Tracy Edwards with an all-female crew of ten, has been  forced to abandon its attempt on the Round the World  non-stop record for the Trophèe Jules Verne.

In pitch darkness at 0850 GMT this morning, on her  forty-third day at sea having covered approximately 15,200 miles since setting off from Ushant, north west   France on 3rd February, disaster struck Royal &  SunAlliance. In 40-foot seas and winds gusting from 30 to 50 knots, a huge wave came up behind them, lifting the stern and burying both bows in the wave ahead bringing the boat to a shuddering halt. About five minutes later, creaking could be heard from the top of the mast and the whole thing just crumpled over the port side and broke up as it hit the hull. 

The all-female crew, who are safe and well, are getting to grips with the new challenge of making the boat sailable and heading for land, some 2,000 miles away in South America. There is no possibility of pursuing the record. At the time of the disaster, the boat had covered about 350 miles in the last twenty-four hours, and had averaged 435 miles a day over the last nine days in the relentless pursuit of the record of 71 days 14 hours, 22 minutes and 8 seconds set last year by Frenchman Olivier de Kersauson. 

Speaking from the boat, Tracy Edwards said:  ‘We are disappointed beyond belief as we were so close to getting to Cape Horn in such good time against the record. Words cannot describe how we feel at the moment although the girls are once again pulling on their reserves of strength to get through this.’